Indian restaurants in the UK and in European cities have come a very long way from the hole-in-the-wall curry and tandoori takeaways which are done with, though they have had their day. Nisha Paul chooses two restaurants in London and one in Barcelona that continue quietly, to do their bit in making Indian fare stand proud among the finest restaurants in the world…
Trishna, Gymkhana, London
He has picked the two best spots in London, which are in Marylebone and Mayfair. Following a refit, Chef Karam Sethi’s Michelin star restaurant Trishna, has the feel of a contemporary dining room perfect for a stylish sedate crowd and focusses on the coastal cuisine of south-west India. His new venture Gymkhana continues to make raves with impossible bookings and a secluded ‘Love booth’ in the basement of the restaurant for hide-andseek thrill seekers. This one has the distinctive look of a relaxed Indian colonial club adorned with retro ceiling fans and vintage artifacts, that do not stop the design-conscious Indophiles and chic Brits from thronging in to tantalise their taste buds.
How did you start as a chef?
I think since I was 13 or 14 I knew I wanted to go into the restaurant or hospitality business. I remember going on family summer holidays to Delhi and learning how to cook with my grandmother, mother and the cooks in our kitchen. I was chopping and picking up skills from them. While growing up my parents took us to some fantastic restaurants and I always tried to peek into their kitchens to see what I could learn. After I finished school in London, I worked in Maurya in Delhi for a year and gained my initial experience there.
What do you think of the London dining scene today?
In the last 18 months it’s booming and the strongest it’s ever been. The sheer diversity of restaurant concepts along with cutting-edge innovative young chefs on the scene makes it brilliant. The new restaurant Kitchen Table, serving Chef James Knappett’s cooking is both original and fantastic. It has only 19 seats and the menu changes daily.
All the dishes are prepared with fresh seasonal produce and inspired by the chef’s personal travels and experiences. It’s part of our group and there is nothing like it in London at the moment.
Fay Maschler (London’s legendary food critic) has praised Gymkhana. What’s your inspiration there?
I wanted Gymkhana to be the kind of Indian restaurant that I would like to go to, very old school in style with good offerings of beer, a strong snack menu with a variety of kebabs. Whenever I go to Indian restaurants I like having many small plates of food and finish up with a curry or a biryani, dal and rotis. So this one is my dream restaurant. At Trishna our signature dish is the ajwaini salmon tikka, which is served with a dill raita and followed by a main course of lobster cooked in three ways, in a Goan xacuti style, along with a small lobster samosa and a mini lobster kathi roll. At Gymkhana, the kid goat methi kheema served with pao bread and wild muntjac biryani with a pomegranate and rose raita are our bestselling dishes. The duck dosa with coconut chutney is popular at lunch time.
Did you think you would win a Michelin star for Trishna?
Not for a moment. The year before we got the Michelin star, we won a Bib Gourmand Award. The news on the Michelin award got leaked a week in advance on Twitter and it was a double celebration for me as it was my birthday that day. My wife’s family is also in the restaurant business and she is my best judge and adviser on tastings and ideas for new recipes.
Who are the celebrities that have frequented your restaurants?
At Trishna, Ian Botham comes often and loves our food and wine selection. I am a great cricket fan and we often chat about it. Celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal enjoys our cuisine at Gymkhana.
Gymkhana, 42 Albemarle Street, London W1S 4JH.
Mayura Lounge, Barcelona
Barca not only scores in football but is a gourmet capital and the latest buzz is that Catalunya now has more Michelin star restaurants than France. Mayura Lounge is located in the Eixample area of Barcelona and conceptualised by Wharton-educated Rajnish Kapoor. The restaurant is named after his charming wife Mayura, a former beauty queen who enjoys cooking. Indian cuisine here has definitely mapped its space serving simple clean flavours alongside traditional classic spiced dishes that give an authentic flavour of India in Spain. Natural elements such as bamboo, stone and silk with cascading waterfalls and mood lighting make an inviting space for a chilled out time.
What inspired you to start an Indian restaurant in Barcelona?
I don’t know what came first, the idea of living in Barcelona or starting a restaurant as a business. While travelling around Europe in the early 2000’s, we were aware of the lack of international restaurants in Spain, with very few simple Indian restaurants in Barcelona which was a fast growing cosmopolitan city. We saw an opportunity to start a business and live in a beautiful city that has some of the best produce and a wonderful climate and is a tourist paradise all year round. As my wife enjoys cooking and I love eating, we decided to create a space with a unique ambience, one that is different from your usual Indian, in which to share our love for food.
What is the response you have had since you conceptualised the venture and what is the awareness for Indian cuisine in Barcelona today?
Indian cuisine in Barcelona has come a long way since we opened the restaurant. The first couple of years were challenging, trying to understand the local palate and in turn educate it to the varied flavours of our cuisine. In many ways Indian and Spanish food are complete opposites. Indian food is laborious, condemented to the extreme, often marinated for long periods of time and then cooked. Traditional Spanish food is quite the contrary emphasising the quality of the produce rather than the process. It’s lightly flavoured and instantly prepared, thus typical Spanish food often tastes bland to the Indian taste.
In the past we found people automatically perceived Indian food as chilli hot, they associated the two as the same and hence many had the fear of trying the food. Keeping that in mind we had to lower the spice factor in the food we serve to make it accessible for the Spanish, that of course does not stop us from making dishes with extra chili for those who request it. People here don’t care much for curries whereas in England it is paramount to Indian food. Grilled tandoori meats and freshly baked breads are very successful. We now have a loyal clientele, who not only love the food but come and enjoy the black and white Bollywood movies we screen at Zenbar, which is a water body designed for a relaxing time. Our biggest compliment comes from Indians visiting Barcelona when they continuously tells us it’s the best Indian food they have had.
What are your signature dishes?
Our tandoor-roasted potatoes stuffed with kheema and lamb chops are popular. We serve masala papad with fresh guacamole on the side, which people love. We also serve a traditional kulfi and a lethal hot chocolate brownie. Which local or international celebrities have visited? Lots of artistes from different genres, flamenco dancers, politicians, TV presenters and members of the FC Barcelona football team frequent the restaurant.
Mayura Lounge, Carrer de Girona 57, 08009 Barcelona, Spain.